Monday, September 25, 2023

2016 All Over Again?

On my Substack I recently wrote about how many of the large factors influencing the 2024 election are similar to those in 2016. The point is not doom and gloom, but for progressives to act proactively to mitigate them instead of failing to see the issues. (This was the mistake of 2016.) 

I did not talk about the Dobbs decision in my piece, as a friend on Facebook rightly pointed out. It certainly represents a major change from 2016, but I am not sure it is entirely in Democrats' favor. The fact that Dobbs came AFTER Biden's election seemed to underscore the futility of fighting a conservative movement that has decided to use non-democratic means to stay in power. The young people I know seem more fatalistic now, and far less politically committed. One thing that can doom democracy is a feeling that participating in it just doesn't matter. 

Again, I am not saying that Trump will definitely win in 2024, but I consider it a coin flip, which is fearsome enough. 

Saturday, September 16, 2023

Catching Up and Thoughts on Rock Geezerdom

The start of the school year had me on the longest hiatus of my blogging career, I think. I have had a ten megaton stress bomb detonated on me and it's been hard to do anything other than just maintain. I have written a couple of things over on Substack, however. One essay gets into the ways that we have failed to reckon with 9/11 and the wars that followed. Another is about how seeing Bruce Springsteen live motivated me for the school year

That was such a fine experience that when Bob Dylan tickets for shows in Jersey this coming November went on sale Friday, I snatched them up. As I have written about before, people my age (born in the mid-70s) have a strange emotional attachment to the music made by the generation before us. It was a product not just of the long Boomer shadow, but of growing up in the 80s corporatization of the radio waves. I could listen to one station and hear "Sussudio," or another and hear "Whole Lotta Love." The choice wasn't hard.

These days it's easy to wonder how long my most beloved geezer rockers will keep running. I bought Springsteen tickets -despite disliking stadium shows- because I wondered if this was my last shot. I am hearing similar rumors about Dylan's upcoming tour. I am also beginning to think I need to find a way to see Neil Young soon, or to finally catch the Stones. 

In recent years I have gone out of my way to listen to new music, and most of what passes through my Spotify is indie stuff by people in their 20s and 30s. While I enjoy seeing new bands live on their way up, seeing the geezer gods live gives me a feeling on a different level. The Springsteen show, for instance, was like a religious experience. I felt the same way when I saw Dylan the day after the 2004 election and he played "It's Alright Ma, I'm Only Bleeding" and sang "Sometimes even the President of the United States must stand naked" with a barbed intonation. 

What I also find interesting is that some of the geezer gods still make great and interesting new music, and others don't. Rough and Rowdy Ways is one of Dylan's best albums, in my opinion. Springsteen's more recent songs did not sound slight when played live next to his oldies. I really enjoyed Paul McCartney's last album, especially how much he experimented. Contrast this with The Rolling Stones, who have not put out an album of new material since 2006. They just put out a single, "Angry," that is, shall we say, suboptimal. It sounds like an outtake from Voodoo Lounge, and very well might be. Mick's posturing is parodic, and the production sounds dated, but not dated to the Stones' heyday. 

It's telling that the video features the young actress Sydney Sweeney dancing beneath images of the Stones' glorious past. The Stones simply aren't allowed to grow old, and self-reflection is anti-thetical to their music. Springsteen's concert was full of references to mortality, aging, and dedications to the departed. I wonder if the next Stones tour will do much to reckon with Charlie Watts' absence. 

I still love those old Stones records, but as I age I have less patience for people who try to fool the world that they are forever young. Springsteen and Dylan have crafted some profound songs in their later years about being old, songs I bet I will keep with me when I reach their current age and they are long gone. Maybe just maybe we can convince Mick and Keef to be a little vulnerable and admit that death's cold hand is soon coming for them, too. 

Wednesday, August 30, 2023

Summer of Springsteen Part Six: Living Legend

I was worried that I was not going to finish this project by Friday, when I will finally be seeing the Boss live. What helped was that I generally really like his most recent work. I did a listen of Dylan's albums two years ago, and there were wild swings in quality. Listening to his whole catalog, I was struck by how Springsteen managed to maintain such a high standard. While I won't be revisiting some of his albums, none of them could be called bad. 

Springsteen has embraced his status as a living legend in his most recent phase. He wrote a memoir, told his story on Broadway, and hosted a podcast with Barack Obama. He has also been less predictable in his musical styles, which I think has really paid off. He is one of the few rock legacy acts (along with Dylan) who is making new music worth listening to that explores new directions.


Springsteen on Broadway (2018)

I said before that his 80s live box was the only live album I was going to cover, but this one demands to be addressed. A rock star on Broadway seems like a contradiction in terms, but his autobiographical show fits with his turn inward, also marked by his excellent memoir. After a flurry of activity from 2001 to 2014, Springsteen took a step back from new music and toured the side roads. 

I regretted not seeing this show, and for that reason never listened to it or watched the film because of the intense FOMO. I can say now that it is a true career highlight. Springsteen's memoir proved he's a great storyteller outside of songs, and his stories here make a similar impact. His intro to the acoustic version of "Born in the USA" is one of the most moving things I have ever heard. He talks about reporting to the draft office the same day as two other musicians he knew in the Jersey Shore scene. Springsteen was not taken, but his friends were, and neither of them came home from Vietnam. He then wonders about the person who took his place. The rendition of the song that follows will just rip your heart out. 

There's also plenty of humor. He starts by admitting he never worked a day in a factory. At first this seems flippant, then you realize he was trying to articulate his parents' experiences. The vignettes of working-class life in small-town Jersey are incredibly vivid. Also, as I have said before, Springsteen might be at his best when it's just him and an acoustic guitar. I will definitely be returning.

Rating: Five Bosses (out of five)

Western Stars (2019)

I saw a lot of praise for this one when it came out. I listened to it for the first time on a Western road trip, anticipating a perfect marriage of sound and experience. Unfortunately, it left me flat. I was excited to hear Springsteen dig into a more country sound, since that had always been an under the radar influence on his music. For some reason, it felt flat.

For this project I listened to it while going on a long walk, and it totally clicked. Much of the record feels like a concept album about a drifter alone out west, and it drew me in. Many of the songs have an understated beauty to them, like looking at the Western sky. I am probably the target audience, considering that I grew up in rural Nebraska right where the Midwest meets the West. 

At the same time, this album has some of Springsteen's 21st century album issues. Some songs are a little flight, and the production is too distracting in others. Those issues don't sink the album, one that successfully looked to new artistic vistas.

Rating; Four Bosses

A Letter to You (2020)

In the beginning of the pandemic here in Jersey they did a telecast honoring and fundraising for health care workers (I don't know if it was televised elsewhere.) Various people Zoomed in from their homes. Jersey guy John Stewart hosted, but the highlight was Bruce Springsteen and Patty Scialfa playing and singing some songs on acoustic guitar from their living room. In that very dark time, when hundreds of people in my state were dying every day, it was a bright spot of hope. This album came out of that time, and out of a demand to make sense of it. Not surprisingly, there are plenty of songs about death and aging.

"Ghost" particularly good. Its hard-rocking surface almost obscures the theme of missing a departed loved one. Springsteen has been performing it at every show on his current tour, with good reason. We all remember that pandemic feeling of intensely valuing life and the people in it brought on by the knowledge of life's fragility. Springsteen appropriately reunited with the E Street Band, and this song and others feel like more "band" efforts than he has had in awhile. 

As with his other recent records, there are some inconsistencies but this time around the production style feels much better suited to the material. 

Rating: Four Bosses

Only The Strong Survive (2022)

This is his second covers record, with the first being The Seeger Sessions. While that album reinterpreted the classics with flair and originality, this one mostly plays it straight. It's not nearly as good, but Springsteen's deep love for the soul material he sings at least makes this listenable. The backing sound and production are more fitting for a karaoke machine, but the Boss can still make a meal out of these songs. 

Springsteen's earliest records are steeped in R&B, and it's something still alive in his live sound but not really on his records since Born to Run. It's great to hear him in this mode. The songs might not be interpreted originally, but I commend the Boss for his choice of tunes. I also think he breaks out of karaoke into something more stunning with his versions of "I Wish It Would Rain" and "Seven Rooms." 

This is a slight album but a fun performance. To quote an earlier song of his, "It ain't no sin to be glad you're alive."

Rating: Three Bosses

Monday, August 28, 2023

Summer of Springsteen Part Five: Rising Back

After his quiet 90s, Springsteen came roaring back in the 2000s. His comeback was intimately tied to 9/11, and his music of the era is some of the little we have that is genuine in discussing the terror attack and the wars that followed. While Springsteen achieved critical acclaim in this period, he was starting to spin his wheels a bit. Part of this had to do with a production style that did not serve the songs very well. Springsteen ended this run with a strong album in Wrecking Ball, then switched gears and went Broadway.


The Rising (2002)

The fact that songs on this album were connected to 9/11, either in their themes or lyrical content, was much discussed at the time. Despite all of the talk and public ritual, I do not think this country has really dealt with the real trauma of that day. I feel like these songs, especially "Empty Sky," actually do. Springsteen brought back the E Street Band for this one, but you really can't tell from the music. He achieved a kind of compromise where he would bring these "blood brothers" back, but he would continue to make the music he wanted to make. The album holds up surprisingly well, but it has a bloat problem endemic to his 21st century albums. Just because a CD can fit more songs it doesn't mean they all belong there. 

Rating: Four Bosses

Devils and Dust (2005)

Fitting with his pattern, Springsteen followed a massive popular success with an acoustic album. This one is not as good as Nebraska and Ghost of Tom Joad, but it's still excellent. The title song, from the point of view of an American soldier in Iraq, is about how the country bears the guilt for the killings it sends people to commit in their name. Some of the songs give us a glimpse into Springsteen's spirituality as well. As you can probably tell by my ratings, I really enjoy this side of Springsteen.

Rating: Four and a half Bosses

We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions (2006)

I have loved this record from the second I first heard it. Revisiting it, it somehow sounded even better. Springsteen's folk influences, there from the beginning, get fully indulged here. It's a covers record of songs interpreted by folkie godfather Pete Seeger, but Springsteen makes them all his own. What I appreciate is that he turns folk from "serious guy with an acoustic guitar" into rollicking, good time music. The "folk" have to break their backs all day long for the boss, they need to party in their downtime! If there is such a thing as a folk song party record, this is it. If you are feeling down and need a burst of energy, listen to this. 

Rating: Five Bosses

Magic (2007)

I remember this album getting a lot of love when it came out. Springsteen is back with the E Street Band, but it's not quite as memorable as The Rising. The lead single "Radio Nowhere" had a hard sound to it that intrigued me, but no hooks. He is still railing against the Bush administration's "war on terror," one of the few to do it this effectively. While it's not strong top to bottom, songs like "Long Walk Home" stand out. This album establishes a pattern for a lot of his later records. They are less consistent than his early work, but still have songs worthy of his career best. 

Rating: Three and a half Bosses 

Working on a Dream (2009)

Springsteen recorded this one during tour breaks, which gives it a looser feel. The songs aren't as strong however, as some of his other releases. I do like the experiments with a Beach Boys sound at one point, a sign that Springsteen was still trying to do new things. "Good Eye" is hardcore blues of the kind we've never heard from him before. He might not be as obvious about it as Bowie or Madonna, but Springsteen is quietly one of the more unpredictable major rock stars. This is not a great record but it's a fun one to listen to.

Rating; Three and a half Bosses

Wrecking Ball (2012)

After getting looser with his last album, Springsteen came out swinging on this one, a statement about the Great Recession, another trauma like 9/11 that we have failed to reckon with. The production is far more focused than Magic and Working on a Dream. At times, there's the spirit that made The Seeger Sessions so great, as on "Death to My Hometown." While it still has some fat on it, the number of strong songs is really high. I hadn't listened to this album since it came out, and I was struck by its vitality. It's easily the best of his original studio albums of this era. 

Rating: Four and a Half Bosses

High Hopes (2014)

This is a weird one, since it consists of songs that were performed only live before, out-takes, and covers, but all re-recorded. The reviews made it sound really slight, but I actually enjoyed listening to this hodgepodge. The addition of Rage Against the Machine guitarist Tom Morello brings something new and vital to the mix and Springsteen sounds energetic. The production styles are a bit confounding, however. Some songs sound like they are straight out of 1998. This doesn't cohere much as an album, but individual songs stand out well. By bringing together out-takes from the prior decade, Springsteen was putting a bow on his 21st-century revival. After this he would head in new directions, from Broadway to the Western plains. 

Rating: Three and a half Bosses

Sunday, August 20, 2023

Summer of Springsteen Part Four: 90s Sidetrack

After becoming a superduperstar in the 80s, Bruce Springsteen took a step back in the 90s. He married the love of his life and became a parent, something I know from personal experience makes you less invested in external validation. He only put out three studio albums in the 90s, and none between 1995 and 2002. In 1995 he released a greatest hits album and an acoustic record full of sad songs. The former showed signs of slowing down, the latter signaled that Springsteen wanted to break the mold.


Human Touch (1992)

In 1991, Guns N Roses put out the two Use Your Illusion albums simultaneously, an innovation that Springsteen followed the next year with Human Touch and Lucky Town. I am actually surprised more artists haven't followed this early 90s trend, which allows them to craft different vibes on different records in the same creative moment. In Springsteen's case, he had been working on Human Touch for years, and as he went back into the studio to complete it, he had a burst of creativity that became Lucky Town. As you can probably guess by the story of its genesis, Lucky Town is the superior album. 

Human Touch gets off to a fantastic start with the title track and lead single. one of the Boss's catchiest. Its longing for love and connection fits with his traditional themes, too. Unfortunately, there is no other track on the record that is close to being this good. I've seen many rate this as his worst album. I can't say that yet for certain, but it is definitely his first average album after a run of excellence. In the context of the time, it didn't help that he had recorded much of it in 1989-1990, at the height of overproduction. He also recorded it with crack studio musicians instead of the E Street Band. 1991 brought multiple major changes in rock music, from REM's embrace of the acoustic, U2 bringing in the Madchester beats and electronics, and most importantly, Nirvana's grunge explosion. This album sounded like a relic the day it was released. 

All that being said, if you listened to the album without knowing the artist you would think it was pretty dang good. Despite what a lot of people say online, "57 Channels and Nothing On" was a great little novelty song in the context of the proliferation of cable in the 90s. This is not a bad album, it's just not memorable and not up to the Boss's standards.

Rating: Three Bosses (out of five)

Lucky Town (1992)

While Human Touch feels overly crafted, Lucky Town feels fresh and spontaneous. "Better Days" kicks things off with a bang, and can even be seen as a kind of meta-commentary. After years of studio tinkering on Human Touch, here Springsteen is letting it ride, breaking out of a creative funk. Crucially, studio musicians are less prominent here, helping to de-slickify the sound. It's almost as if Springsteen saw the way music was changing and needed to quickly reorient himself. 

Considering its origins, it still feels like a coda to Human Touch, rather than its own creation. That said, it is worth a listen. 

Rating: Four Bosses

Greatest Hits

I am not reviewing the entire album, just the new tracks Springsteen recorded. He reunited with the E Street Band, raising hopes that he would return back to his old ways after a disappointing sojourn on his own. This album also included "Streets of Philadelphia," a single from the soundtrack to the film Philadelphia sung from the point of view of a man dying of AIDS. It is one of his most affecting songs, especially considering the stigma at that time around the disease and the lack of life-saving drugs. It gets me every time.

"Murder Incorporated" rocked hard, but was recorded back in 1982. "Secret Garden," "This Hard Land," and "Blood Brothers" were newly recorded but not necessarily newly written. "Secret Garden" was like an outtake from Tunnel of Love, but if Springsteen wasn't sad. "Blood Brothers" and "This Hard Land" were alright but not up to the standards of the rest of the record. "Streets of Philadelphia" is an all-timer, but the rest isn't that memorable.

Rating: Three and a half Bosses

The Ghost of Tom Joad (1995)

I have listened to this album many, many times, more than any other Springsteen record after his "classic" period. It had been awhile since I'd heard it, however, and I was glad to see that it still met or even exceeded my former love for it. 

This album came out in late 1995, perhaps the high water mark of the "End of History" feeling after the collapse of communism. The economy was growing again, and very few people wanted to address the ways that America's inequality paradoxically worsened in that period. On my college campus there was no activism, and my leftist political outlook was pretty rare. It was exciting to hear an album like this, where Springsteen returned to the Woody Guthrie mode of Nebraska

The issues reflected his move to California, with multiple songs about the US-Mexico border, an issue that has come to dominate national discourse. He seems well aware of the times on the title track, which sounds like a lonely cry for justice in a neoliberal wilderness. That song and "Youngstown" are for my money two of the best that he ever wrote. "Youngstown" tells the story of the Rust Belt with such power that it brings a tear to my eye every time. 

As with Nebraska, Springsteen has songs from specific points of view like "Straight Time," which goes inside the mind of an ex-prisoner who feels let down by daily life on the outside. It is a quietly profound song that embodies the kind of intrusive thoughts we all carry in our heads. 

This album's critical reputation is not as high as my love for it. I see critical comments about the quiet, almost choked way Springsteen sings these songs. It's obviously intentional, and I actually think it works. It's the sound of a man telling truths so against the grain of the time that they are literally hard to hear. Based on his acoustic albums, if Bruce had never fronted the E Street Band he would have ended up being one of this nation's greatest folk singers. 

Wednesday, August 16, 2023

Summer of Springsteen Part Three: Reluctant Superstar

In this installment, I will be looking at Born in the USA, Live 1975-85, and Tunnel of Love.

On Nebraska Bruce Springsteen crafted a quietly searing critique of life in America at the dawn of the Reagan Era. In 1984 Reagan himself would try to claim Springsteen as his own as millions embraced the Born in the USA album as an unironic badge of patriotism. The Boss shot into the pop stratosphere with the 80s pantheon of Michael Jackson, Prince, and Madonna. By the time Tunnel of Love came out, it was obvious that he wanted off the ride. 


Born in the USA (1984)

For those who weren't around, it's hard to convey how big this album was in the mid-80s, especially in the small-town Midwestern world I grew up in. A record-tying SEVEN songs from this album went top ten, including "Cover Me" and "I'm Goin' Down," which are not classic rock radio staples (unlike the rest). The cover became its own iconic image and shorthand. Listening to this in the context of Springsteen's earlier albums, the change is jolting. The big drum sound and synths on the opening title track were perfectly in line with Top 40 at the time. For almost 40 years now, that sound and the song's chorus have tricked people into thinking it's a patriotic ditty and not an indictment of how this country sent its young men to kill, die, and be broken in a useless war. For years I blamed this on the stupidity of the masses, but as Jefferson Cowie has pointed out, by cloaking this song in the pop language of the time, Springsteen contributed to the confusion. 

This whole album tries to have it both ways, and actually manages to get away with it. There are some really powerful commentaries on the state of post-industrial America in the title track and "My Hometown." "Dancing in the Dark" is one of Springsteen's ultimate songs of the emotional insanity caused by longing. Anyone who like me has ever had to pick up their life and move alone to a strange place where they feel lost knows the feeling of this song. That same feeling of longing to the point of emotional breakdown comes through on "I'm On Fire" as well. Desperation without longing is there in "Cover Me" and "I'm Goin' Down." 

As on the The River, Springsteen blends in some good-time fun songs like "Darlington County" and "Glory Days." The latter is about how much aging sucks, but like "Hungry Heart" that sentiment is buried under a catchy riff, fun vibe, and a bit of humor at the narrator's expense. There is darkness here, but the poppy production and catchy hooks made it all palatable for the Reagan Era masses. I have heard these songs so many times that I never really feel the need to put the album on. Listening to it front to back, I can appreciate how it blended Springsteen's perspective with the pop music tropes of the time. Hearing it again with fresh ears I understand why this album made such an immense impact. I can also hear why Springsteen would retreat from this mode afterward. 

Rating: Five Bosses (out of five)

Live 1975-85 (1986)

I am not listening to any other Springsteen live albums for this project, but I included this one because it is an essential moment in his career rather than a tour memento, as the other live records are. It came out at the height of Springsteen's fame and became another huge hit despite carrying a hefty price tag due to its five (!) LP breadth. Back in the 70s rock artists would regularly put out double live albums, none had the ability to release something this massive and expect people to buy it. 

Springsteen had the best reputation as a live performer of any rock star of his generation, and this set shows why. Many famous songs sound even better live here, especially the songs from his Jersey Shore Poet days. He released his cover of "War" as a single, quite a statement at the height of Reagan Era Cold War bluster and debates over intervention in Central America. Despite becoming an American icon to the type of people who don't question the country very much, he refused to drop his critical voice.

Above all, the version of "The River" here is one of the best live cuts by any artist ever. Springsteen prefaces it with a story about his conflicts with his father in his youth, and how despite that, his father was glad when Springsteen failed his draft physical during Vietnam. It'll bring a tear to your eye, and then he launches into the monumentally sad song, with the words "They bring you up to do just like your daddy done" carrying extra bite. Essential listening.

Rating: Five Bosses

Tunnel of Love (1987)

As with Nebraska, Springsteen responded to greater popularity by taking a left turn. The old E Street Band sound, already quite faded in every record since Born to Run, is almost completely absent here. That makes sense, because its members hardly play on this album dominated by synths and drum machines. When I was a dumb orthodox rockist youth, I wrote this album off for those elements, which I had rejected as the height of 80s tackiness. Now that times have changed and recent acts like The War on Drugs have resurrected this style of 80s rock, I can appreciate it more.

The music is not the only big change. Instead of documenting the blue-collar world, Springsteen dug into affairs of the heart. He wrote this album as his marriage to his first wife Julianne Phillips fell apart. He seemed ready to put the E Street Band and his position as an American icon behind him, too. Songs like "Tunnel of Love" and "Brilliant Disguise" still had pop hooks, but the singer felt emotionally naked in ways you'd rarely hear on Top 40 radio. He seems desperate to escape superstardom and to live a different life.

This album's reputation has only grown over the years, and justifiably so. I have see multiple people rate it as Sprinsteen's best. I can't go that far because the 80s production can't be fully overcome, but it's still a testament to his versatility and unwillingness to stick with the familiar. 

Rating: Four and a Half Bosses

Monday, August 14, 2023

Summer of Springsteen Part Two: Rust Belt Jeremiah

In this installment of Summer of Springsteen I am looking at the Boss's trio of late 70s-early 80s albums: Darkness on the Edge of Town, The River, and Nebraska. In this period, he stepped away from his original Jersey Shore/New York Street Poet persona and started writing songs about a broader and less bohemian working-class experience. Musically the E Street Band's R&B roll subsided and the harder rock came to the fore, with flashes of country music thrown in. These albums coincided with a period of harsh deindustrialization and economic hardship as well as the rise of Reaganomics, which would leave those struggling to drown. These records are some of the best documents of that dark time.


Darkness on the Edge of Town (1978)

Springsteen had to take a three-year break between albums due to legal issues with his former manager. Back in the 70s, when artists put out a new album every year, this was an eternity. The album cover told the story of a changed man. On Born to Run's cover, Springsteen is all smiles and swagger as he leans on Clarence Clemons. On the cover of this album he looks sad and haunted, standing in what I remember to be a typical working-class kitchen of the late 70s. 

This is a top three Springsteen album for me, and I have written about it more extensively before. This time around, hearing it in the context of his early career, I was struck by a new emotion in his songs: anger. "Adam Raised a Cain," about his difficult relationship with his father, is absolutely seething. Springsteen's new musical direction, with shorter songs and simpler arrangements, also reflected the changing musical landscape of punk and New Wave, including its spikiness. This is clear right off the bat with the album opener, "Badlands," not to mention that he wrote "Because the Night" in this era for Patti Smith.

In Stayin' Alive, Jefferson Cowie's account of the working class in the 1970s, he writes far more brilliantly than I can of how this album reflected the travails of blue-collar workers and a sense that hard-fought economic security from the New Deal and postwar expansion was fading away. "Factory" shows that even when times are good and jobs are plentiful, that factory work ultimately eats the soul. The unbearable weight of daily life is also present in "Racing in the Street," a song that makes me cry almost every time I hear it. What happens if you try so hard to avoid the trap of birth-school-work-death and still fail? 

"Promised Land" and "Prove It All Night" offer some hints of optimism, but there is desperation in these songs' characters. It ends with the title track, a song that will resonate deeply with anyone who has ever felt trapped in an isolated small town. You can drive out to the edge of town, but all you will see is darkness. 

As I mentioned last time, Springsteen's magic is to embody those feelings of longing so intense that they make us crazy. He does this multiple times on this record: "Badlands," "Candy's Room," "Racing in the Street," "Promised Land," "Prove It All Night," "Streets of Fire," and "Darkness on the Edge of Town." Take this album and cut the pain from my heart. 

Rating: Five Bosses (out of five)

The River (1980)

I will fully admit that this is the "classic" Springsteen album I have listened to the least over the years, even though the title track is a top five Springsteen song. Part of the issue is that I tend to shy away from double albums, since even the best (like the White Album) have filler. In this case there are a handful of songs too indistinguishable to justify the long running time. 

Make no mistake, it's still really damn good. The more prominent keyboards and tighter sound reflect how Springsteen adapted to new wave, bridging musical eras in ways so many of his peers never could. He also used the double album format to blend different vibes together. There are plenty of songs of woe and desperation, like "The River" and "Wreck on the Highway," but they are mixed in with little moments of joy. When times get tough, sometimes you cry but most of the time you try to laugh. The country influence, especially on "Drive All Night," might be deeper here than on any of his albums until the recent Western Skies

He also had a top ten hit with "Hungry Heart," a funny, bright song with an undercurrent of danger apparent from the opening lines: "Got a wife and kids in Baltimore, Jack/ I went out for a ride and I never went back." The glowing piano and chorus hide the character's desperation pretty effectively. That feel-good vibe really shines in "I'm a Rocker" and "Cadillac Ranch," too. It's not an album I like to listen to front to back, but most of the songs are great.

Rating: Four and a half Bosses

Nebraska (1982)

I have also written a lot about this one elsewhere, and I am going to try my best not to start gushing here. This is one of the all-time great left turns in rock history. After gaining fame for his big fun three-hour concerts where everyone looks like they are having the time of their lives (just check out this performance of "Rosalita"), Springsteen did an acoustic album about the hard times of the Reagan era full of songs about murder, loss, inequality, and hopelessness. Evidently, a lot of these were written and recorded around the same time he was working on the Born in the USA album, which would present a very different image to the world. 

I have listened to this album a million times, but hearing it right after The River really helped me see the depth of Springsteen's statement. There are no love songs here, unless you count "Highway Patrolmen" as an example of brotherly love under the harshest circumstances. The open road of "Born to Run," full of adventure and life, has become the claustrophobic, violent and dark space of "State Trooper." The boardwalk and fun at the Jersey Shore has become "Atlantic City," where the song's narrator has "debts no honest man can pay" in the famed seaside town.

Along with the murder ballads of the title track and "Johnny 99," there are songs about the pain of growing up poor and "less than" like "Used Cars" and "Mansion on the Hill." There's "My Father's House," a tenderly despondent song about the regret that comes from broken family relationships. It all ends with "Reason to Believe" a song for the existential philosopher in all of us. In the verses, Springsteen tells us that this world is cruel and senseless, with no rewards for the just and the good. Nevertheless, the chorus tells us, with tremendous bitter irony, that "At the end of every hard-earned day people find some reason to believe." That is either inspiring or pathetic, depending on where you stand. 

This album doesn't just stand as a document of horrible economic transition of the Reagan Era, it speaks to the human condition in ways normally suited for theologians, poets, and philosophers, rather than rock stars. Of all Springsteen's albums, this will be the one that will be listened to the longest. 

Rating: Five Bosses